Why Government Is Not a Bad Word (with Adam Conover)
Andy talks with comedian Adam Conover about his Netflix show, “The G Word,” where he partnered with President Obama to educate Americans on how the federal government works and what needs fixing within it. From public libraries to FEMA, they discuss how comedy can help Americans understand, appreciate, and properly scrutinize the agencies working for us everyday.
Keep up with Andy on Twitter @ASlavitt.
Follow Adam Conover on Twitter @adamconover.
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Check out these resources from today’s episode:
- Watch “The G Word” on Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/title/81037116
- Check out Adam’s tour dates: http://www.adamconover.net/tourdates/
- Find vaccines, masks, testing, treatments, and other resources in your community: https://www.covid.gov/
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For additional resources, information, and a transcript of the episode, visit lemonadamedia.com/show/inthebubble.
Andy Slavitt, Adam Conover, Barack Obama, Kyle
Andy Slavitt 00:17
Welcome IN THE BUBBLE, this is Andy Slavitt. It’s Wednesday, July 20th. We’ve had a lot of really interesting shows recently about trying to get the government to work better for us. Monday’s was a great example, Senator Chris Murphy, who for 10 years has been working on trying to get a gun reform bill passed, a bipartisan bill finally did get past and he talked about that if you haven’t listened, it’s a great listen to hear the inside story. But look, it is without question, whether you’re thinking about the pandemic, whether you’re thinking about how we control inflation, whether you’re thinking about guns, whether you’re thinking about how to provide choice and protection health for women in the face of the dobs ruling, that we rely on government. And that’s what this show is going to be a little bit about today. And I will tell you that like, as many people may know, I served both in the Obama and Biden administration’s is that it’s very easy to grow frustrated with government, and oftentimes government deserves it, you know, just weird don’t get the level of accountability. It feels very distant from us. There’s all kinds of reasons to be frustrated. At the same time, I will say that having served, it’s very hard to describe to people what it’s like, like what it inside feels like to work with the men and women in the federal. And given the state and local governments. They’re incredible people. And the jobs they do every day, there’s so much that gets done that we don’t know about. There’s also a lot of stuff that’s really wrong. And my guest today, Adam Conover was very interested in this topic. And he went to President Obama, and his production company and Netflix, and they put together this special called the G word to be really interesting. I don’t want to delay a conversation much longer, because I think you’ll really get a kick out of it. And learn a lot. Adam’s a comedian, and he’s got a YouTube presence. And it’s a really interesting special. So let me bring him on.
Andy Slavitt 02:18
So, we have Adam Conover on the show. I have to tell you that I’m a little bit nervous because Adam ruins everything. At least that’s what I’ve heard. You’re not ruining the podcast? Are you, Adam?
Absolutely not. I mean, unless I don’t know what your criteria would be for the podcast to be ruined. I don’t know what you treasure about it particularly. So I don’t know, if you know, I might stumble across something, I might ruin it for you without even realizing it. But it’s certainly not my intention to come in here and ruin anything for you today.
Listeners would probably say it’s a low bar, it’s probably very close to ruin many days anyway. So you are having a very interesting, exciting new project, which I want to tell everybody about if they don’t know about it. I talked a little bit about it when I was introducing you, the show called the G word. And it’s funny because, well, it’s already funny, because like, government is such a bad word that you have to say the G word like you can’t even say the word government.
Thank you. That is the premise of the title. And I’m so glad that it came across. I was worried people would think it was about something else. But yeah, no, it is. that’s the premise of the show that we don’t like to think about the government or even ever talk about it, we’d love to talk about politics. But that’s something different. We don’t like to talk about the government, you know, the thing that we are hiring the politicians to run on our behalf.
Right, and you go into it to like, actually show how it works. Which is interesting from a couple perspectives. I mean, you know, we’ve never met before, but I’ve been in the government two times in my life, both times to lead a major turnaround when something was completely effed up, once was when they launched the Affordable Care Act website. And it didn’t work. President Obama and I came in to lead that and then and then just later last last year, when they were going to roll out the vaccines, and no one had any vaccines. And so I came into work for President Biden to lead that. So the premise that the government doesn’t always work, right, probably is one that you get a lot of people that would say, yeah, I kind of agree with that. But it’s totally fascinating how much people mistake kind of like the politics they see on like CNN or MSNBC, for like the functioning of the largest entity in the country that affects all of us.
Adam Conover 04:36
In the world, honestly, the United States federal government is by many measures, the largest organization of any kind in the world. It’s like one of the largest employers, largest employer in the United States, by far one out of every 16 people in the country works for it. It’s massive. And what we found in making this show is the government is so vast that the number of stories you’ll find inside of it are essentially infinite. Like you turn over a rock, and you will find some incredible way that the government is affecting your life either for good or for bad. And when it’s for bad, the reasons are generally not what you think they’re not as some lazy politician bla bla bla, you know, like you normally see people complaining about on CNN, it’s for much more complicated, interesting reasons that we can actually learn about and unpack and thereby perhaps one day solve.
It’s interesting, because you’ve got to, essentially this, you just describe it. And as you ever show the biggest force in the economy, and in our lives, sometimes it’s hidden. And we don’t often realize it, as you pointed out with things like farm subsidies, which impact the price of we pay for food and in the agriculture industry, but very, very, very low trust, as there’s a new poll out, which says that only 20% of Americans trust the government. And yet you’re attempting to fix it through comedy.
I’m not attempting to fix it. I’m attempting to help people understand it so that we can all work to fix it together. But you know, one of the problems with a poll like that is the question of do you trust the government is far too broad. Because the fact is, the government is so large, and there are so many different agencies that do so many different things, it’s not really sensible to give an answer to that question. And so what we found is there are agencies departments, and certainly individuals who are doing incredible work, and they are doing it in good faith. And they’re doing it only because they know that it needs to be done. Talking about, say, the National Weather Service, right is one of the crown jewels of the American government that, that we have built this incredible agency that monitors weather conditions all across the country, they have 100 weather observation posts, they employ 1000s of meteorologists, who are constantly monitoring the weather, and using cutting edge meteorology science that they’ve developed to predict the future of the most powerful weather systems on Earth. And then they give that data for free to everybody. And that, in fact, is where every weather prediction you ever see comes from you open AccuWeather, you watch the news, you are watching forecasts that originated from the National Weather Service. And I met the folks who work there. And guess what, they just love the weather. They love the weather, they love saving lives, you know, and that’s why they work there they go make more money working for the Weather Channel, but they like working for the federal government, because they really care about the mission. And the National Weather Service has done that job very effectively. You know, it is top to bottom. It’s a wonderful, trustworthy organization. Now, if you take the example of FEMA, do I trust FEMA to come save me if an earthquake hits California? No, I do not. And why is that? It’s because structurally, FEMA is not a particularly well structured organization. And so you know, we need to be able to get past Oh, do we trust the government or not and like actually understand what it does and how well each department, each agency is set up to do the thing we wanted to do before we can even begin to answer that question.
Andy Slavitt 08:00
So what you’re saying requires a nuanced understanding that of the pieces of the government. Indeed, yeah. And I wanted to get into some of those pieces, because I think that’s what you do so well in the show. But I think we kind of start with this kind of interesting irony, which is that you speak to this on the show, which is that anti-government rhetoric, going back to the 1980s, you know, to some extent, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And then we get to things like a pandemic, where we say, well, we really need to trust the government, because there’s someone else who could solve this problem but us, and they’ve done things over time that have caused a large percentage of people to say, I’m not going to trust anything they say or do. Yeah. And when we were rolling out vaccines, it was pretty clear that they’re going to be 30 to 40% of people that were not only not going to do it, listen to anything we had to say, but we’re going to not trust it. Because we were second coming out of the White House. So you’ve got this, this kind of great irony. And maybe it’s, I’m just curious what you learned over the course of doing this, which would lead you to see, you know, is that so, uh, probably see our way through like, I like I think Obama and we’ll talk about him in a second. Like, I think he has a sort of fundamental core belief that like underneath it, all, people are gonna come back to understanding what a good thing government can be and can do that it’s not perfect, but that it can work yet it just feels very, it feels very outside the reality of kind of people’s just surface level, admittedly surface level reaction when they hear the government is going to do something.
Well, I agree, and I don’t agree with that. Certainly, we have had 40 plus years of propaganda, anti-government propaganda of the disempowerment of the government, of the defunding of the government, and we’re living we’re living in Reagan’s America, right? And Reagan didn’t even start that he was just the, you know, the pinnacle of it and really set us on this course. But, you know, the thing is, what the government is about and the case We try to make is it is the sole provider of public goods, that there are certain things that we cannot do individually and that private companies cannot do. And we simply must come together as a society to do them, like the National Weather Service, right? There’s no other way to do that. And people understand that on a deep level, and they do love it, you know, I dare you find any person in America and bring them to their local public library, you know, and ask them how they feel when they walk in the door to the public library, they love it. Right? Everybody loves the library, oh, my God, you can get books for free, they have classes they’ve got, you know, it’s freely available to everybody, et cetera, et cetera. So people know what that feels like. And we can tap into that in order to, you know, bring back their vision of what else we might do. And that’s what we seek to do on this show. One of the aims of the show is to show people here is how the government has solved our biggest problems. In the past disease, meat was killing people, we sent food inspectors into every meat plant in America, and they’re still there today. And that’s why meat doesn’t kill you dead anymore, right? Bank failures used to wipe out your money from the bank, we forced all the banks to put money into a big insurance called the FDIC. And now when a bank fails, the FDIC swoops in and takes over the bank silently. And your money is safe in the bank. These are big measures that we put in place to solve problems, and they’re still in place today, they’re incredibly successful. And to try to remind people of those successes is really important, but that none of us have to discount the sense of failure and the sense of lack that people have of government in their lives. So just to give an example, we went down to, we did an episode on disease. And the question like are our writers room was in session for a week what when the shutdown happened, and we wrote the rest of the thing over zoom on the rest of the show. And so, you know, we initially had a bunch of different ideas for our episodes. And suddenly, we were like, hold on a second, we need to talk about how the government is failing on COVID-19. We all feel this lack, right?
Andy Slavitt 12:01
We actually have a clip from that. If you want us to play it. Why don’t we play that clip? And then we can come in on it?
Or what about COVID-19? I mean, do you remember what it was like, when the pandemic first hit? We were all trapped inside obsessively refreshing the COVID death count websites, and cheering out our windows for frontline workers who didn’t even have access to basic protective equipment. Actually, if you’re stuck inside, you were lucky, because a lot of people like grocery workers were out there risking their lives for minimum wage, do you want your body bag to be paper or plastic? As I watched the pandemic sweep across the country, killing hundreds of 1000s of Americans, I couldn’t help but wonder where the hell was our government? Yeah, oh, man, puts me back there right now just hearing myself talk about, you know, we had this real sense of like, absence and lack, you know, and those of us who understood, hey, the NIH is a terrific organization, right? We’re able to like the NIH is one of the other crown jewels of the government as a medical research organization, were able to say, okay, I can put a little bit of trust there, right? But for the average person who doesn’t have that connection, like, yeah, the question is, why should they trust what the government has to tell them about it, but that’s not because in my view, they’re paranoid or they’re, you know, they have anti-authoritarian personalities or something like that. It’s because they haven’t felt it in their lives. So in this episode, we go down to Lowndes County, Alabama, which is one of the extremely poor county, majority Black County, outside of Montgomery. And at one time, they had the highest COVID-19 rate in the United States a couple of months before we visited them. And in this county, there is one doctor in the entire county, he the federal government pays for him to be there, because it’s a federally qualified health center. And there is one public health department that provides all other public health services in the entire county, right? And we talk to these incredibly overworked government workers who are like doing the Lord’s work there, right, trying to keep people safe during COVID-19. But like, you know, why is the vaccination rate low in Alabama, in that county? Is it because people don’t trust the government? Or is it because, well, hey, we’ve defunded our public health departments progressively over the last 50 years in this country. And so when the pandemic hits, like, there’s nobody to go door to door and knock on people’s doors and say, Hey, don’t you want to get vaccinated for COVID-19? I know you don’t have transportation. I know your house bound. I know you work so hard. You have so many kids that you can’t leave your home. But here we are. We’re going to explain it to you patiently and slowly. They didn’t have that capacity there because we’ve defunded that department and because people there haven’t had the experience of, you know, being cared for in the same way that they should. And so that to me is the failure, right, is that we’re not going out to people and bringing them what they need. And if we were, then we would see a different response from them.
Yeah, I think that’s the point you make very effectively about the self-fulfilling prophecy, right, which is that if you want government to be ineffective, call it an effective tell people don’t trust to tell people to source of all evil, don’t fund things that people need, like public health. You know, or as I think President Trump said, I don’t like paying people to do things that where they’re sitting around doing something where I don’t know what they’re doing. And it sort of stretches like the point which is like, yeah, yeah, that’s right. You don’t know what they’re doing. Because you’re not an expert in everything. And by the way, no president is going to be an expert in everything. And so you need a bunch of these things around and it’s called resiliency to pay the price when you don’t have them. So but at the end of it, it’s the end of it all peoples lessons, and boy, wish we would have funded public health board, the people said his boy, public health really screwed it up, because I don’t think unless they’ve watched your show were found some other way of understanding it. You know, it just looks like the government couldn’t execute on what they weren’t being asked to do.
Adam Conover 16:21
Yeah, I mean, that’s the purpose of the show is to correct the record on that point, you know, that, look, the, we can wag our fingers, all we want and say, well, the government screwed it up. Right? But like, if we’re citizens of a society, who you know, bear some Democratic connection and responsibility to the government? Well, we should say, Well, why did it screw it up? And what are the structural issues that caused it to be screwed up? So the CDC had plenty of problems, but like, we need to ask what those are and investigate them, you know, and try to correct them, rather than just like, you know, say, hey, someone else should have done a better job.
Well, look, I think the place where you started this conversation may be the most important question, which is, okay, so let’s say, you hate the government, you love the government to put that aside, there’s a bunch of things that just won’t get done by anybody that isn’t looking out for the public interest. So we’re not going to put have enough money for kids who have special needs, in schools, unless somebody goes out and says, hey, we need to put money aside for this. There’s a whole bunch of societal needs that are just going to have to get done one way or the other. And we talk a lot of the show about empathy, and kind of institutional lacks of empathy. And how if you haven’t been in the, if you’re in the experience, in a position where you need something out of the ordinary, and no one’s providing it, you feel it pretty acutely. But otherwise, you know, there’s a lot of people who feel like, oh, that’s just a tax on me for something that I don’t get to use. And it’s this sort of lack of, of kind of cohesion, that causes people to say, well, I don’t care about that service, it’s for farmers, or I don’t care about that service. You know, it’s for people who are sick and older, and I’m young and healthy. And this sort of, a lot of the world where people were like, you know, we’ve had to all pay a little bit so that we could do a little bit better. And there may be parts of this country that don’t quite believe that as much as we’d like them to.
Adam Conover 18:52
I think that’s true. I think it rarely takes the form of people. I mean, you’ll hear you know, pundits on right wing talk radio be like, why is my money go to the poor and lazy, that is something that some people believe, but that’s an extreme viewpoint. Most people just don’t think about the fact that it needs to be done, you know? And if you point out to them, hey, can we all agree that this is a need? Yes. Did you realize that no one else will provide this need unless we pool our money together and do it, they’ll generally be for it. And a big part of the show is pointing out to them places in which we are doing that, right? And ways in which we’re failing and just trying to nudge people towards that conclusion that, you know, there are certain things that we cannot do alone, we can only do together. And that’s not the only theme of the show. We also, you know, talk about ways in which the government’s duty to do to provide for the folks who cannot be provided for any other way is perverted and corrupted by you know, money, people pulling the money spigot over towards themselves away from the people where it’s needed. And so in other thing is we have to be eternally vigilant to make sure that doesn’t happen, you know, to make sure that the rich and powerful aren’t..
Andy Slavitt 20:07
Give me an example of that, you gave us some examples when it came to sort of agricultural subsidies. I don’t know if that’s your favorite one. But give me an example.
So you mentioned agricultural subsidies. So the pattern with agricultural subsidies in this country is that they were established during the Dust Bowl era in order to help out the American public because at that time, half of Americans lived on farms. So Farm Aid was American, aid to the American people. And we subsidize the production of certain crops, wheat, rice and corn bulk grains like that. Today, we are basically subsidizing the production of the same grains, except that now, farms, you know, most people don’t live on farms, right? A vanishingly small number of Americans do. And the people who actually own the farms is largely large agribusiness concerns, you know, the day of the family farmer is long gone. And if you see it on your produce, it’s likely by family farm, they mean my billionaire family owns this billion dollar farm. So now all of our subsidies are going to these large agribusiness concerns, and they’re subsidizing the production of grains that aren’t the ones that are the healthy foods, the healthy fruits and vegetables that are in short supply, and that are too expensive for most people. And instead, we’re subsidizing the bulk grains that are turned into highly processed foods. And, you know, that’s a very difficult system to change. We’ve been stuck with it for a long time. But it has some results that we like, which are that it generally keeps food prices down. That’s one of the reasons the government does it. But it keeps the wrong food prices down. And the you know, those agribusiness concerns are very powerful in the States, where you know, of the senators who are voting for the farm bill every, every couple of years. So that’s one example. Another is that the National Weather Service, which I talked about incredible public, good AccuWeather, a company that is built on the National Weather Service’s firehose of data, they get access to it the same way we do, you can go to weather.gov, get all the data for free AccuWeather, can get it as well, right? The AccuWeather doesn’t like that weather.gov is competition for them, they’d rather sell you the data that the weather service is providing to them for free. So they have worked for years to try to limit the Weather Service’s ability to communicate with the public. So for instance, they blocked the weather service from developing a free public app, which would have been incredibly useful. The Weather Service provides, you know, extreme weather notifications, and you know, some of the best, if you don’t subscribe to your, you know, local weather service office, Twitter feed, you absolutely should, because it’s the best source of clear up to the minute weather info in your area. That’s another example. And maybe the best one is that, you know, after the pandemic shutdown, suddenly, you know, trillions of dollars disappear from the economy, poof, because we’re all stuck at home not talking about the medical part of it, it’s literally just a shutdown, right? So the government says, well, we need to flood the economy with cash, because otherwise things are gonna grind to a halt. And you know, people aren’t going to be able to eat, so they create all this money out of thin air in order to do it, and they flood the economy with it, and they save capitalism, right. And it was largely very successful, except that the money didn’t make it into the hands of the people who needed it the most. So we profile for instance, you know, these two women who run a childcare in Los Angeles, Claudia and Sandra, and they actually do infant care, you know, take care for folks who, you know, in that part of LA need to go to work, people who work in hospitals, people who work in supermarkets, you know, they taking care of those people’s kids. They got a total of $6,000 in PPP loans. It wasn’t even a month’s salary for them, right? Meanwhile, you know, big restaurant chains get millions in PPP loans. Hell, I work in the entertainment industry, and my production company got a bigger PPP loan than Sandra did, despite the fact that we are far less essential than she is, you know.
Adam Conover 22:13
You’re pretty essential.
I like what I do, right? But, you know, the reason is because the rich get richer, right? It’s because if you’re a bigger company, you have a better account, you have a bigger bank, you have a bigger lawyer, you have better access to those.
So that’s I was gonna ask you about the tilted playing field, how much of the problem do you think comes down to things like the influence of money in lobbying and access to keep the government making decisions that disadvantaged people at the bottom of the food chain? How much of that is what is, or are there other perversions you mentioned? You know, two senators from every rural state? What are the things that stood out to you is really the biggest things that have to change in order to make the government work better?
Adam Conover 24:55
I mean, I think we have this, we have this desire to say, ah, there’s too much money in politics, we need to like pass a campaign finance bill, kick the lobbyists out, etc. Right? We like to find these one or two blame points. To me, it’s that that’s how our entire society works our entire look, the rich get richer is a law of the universe. If you have more than you have more influence, and you have more power, and you can bring more to yourself, right? That is just the way the world works. And the government is one of the only forces that can push back against it by saying, no, no, we’re not going to distribute things according to who’s loudest and according to who has the most influence. We’re gonna do it evenly. We’re gonna give it to everybody, right? And you can see government programs fighting to do that the public library is a great example. You know, the Public Library is a society saying, God, everybody needs access to information, we’re gonna give it to anyone, everyone is welcome here. You know, public transit at its best is that’s what it is to. But there’s always that other force pulling it against it, saying, you know, hey, those of us who have more, want more. And it’s not just a big corporation. And it’s not just lobbyist. It’s also affluent White homeowners are the largest political class. So we tend to, we’re the largest, loudest most donating most likely to vote political class. So we tend to be able to get policy that benefits us like the mortgage interest deduction. Rather than policies that benefit poor renters, you know, and this […] is baked into society. And so we just need to be fighting against it root and branch at every level all the time, and the fight will never be over.
Andy Slavitt 26:30
Yeah, look, the two biggest subsidies that we’ve ever talked about, are the home interest deduction, which largely supports white people in the suburbs, and $250 billion a year in health benefits for large employers, which also benefits people who are full time salaried, largely […] White, but I’ll tell you, like I ran for President Obama, the biggest part of the federal budget, which is a $1 trillion agency called Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, we had Medicare and Medicaid. And every year, we would put out rules saying, this is how we’re going to pay for, we’re going to reimburse hospitals or doctors, for or homecare agencies or nursing homes, for medical care people in Medicare and Medicaid. And as soon as we would put out a notice, which have a rulemaking, like clockwork, the hospitals, the insurance companies, the pharmaceutical companies, had a well-organized campaigns, letter writing campaigns visiting us, et cetera, et cetera. So what I had to do was ask the staff that was working on this to say, my only requirement is that you get equal input from people who don’t have access to you. So for every time you hear from a hospital, you go, I need you to hear from an equal number of patient advocacy organizations. And that was difficult for them. Because there are people who have offices in Washington blocks, literally blocks from where our offices were, whose entire purpose was to influence us. And so, they would do it, they do it more subtly than people think. They come in educate and inform. But essentially, when they’re unhappy, they can unleash the hounds. So I guess I want to just push on the how to get the government to be at least not as guilty as everybody else and making society work this way.
Adam Conover 28:26
Yeah, I mean, look, it’s, like I said, it’s just something that we need to push against at every level at all times.
You sounded a little bit dismissive of the idea of lobbying reform. That’s why I asked because.
No, no, no, no, I’m not dismissive of the specific idea of lobbying reform, like those are great reforms that we could make, those aren’t going to solve the problem. And what I’d like to point out, is people like to blame only big corporations, or they like to blame it only lobbyists. It’s also like, look, if you live in a million dollar home in the suburbs, right, and you are cranky, about a low, you know, a lower income, housing development being put in your area, like that is also one of these biases of the rich get richer, the more get more attention. And that’s something that we are often, you know, not interested in acknowledging, see the same pattern in criminal justice reform, you know, any other any of these other issues.
You did ruin everything, Adam.
Another good example is, you know, we talked about FEMA. And, you know, we talked about the difference between the response to Hurricane Harvey and the response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, Texas versus Puerto Rico and the same year, and Puerto Rico got, you know, we’re the federal government is able to fly a plane through a hurricane in order to figure out where the hurricane is going, but it can’t bring bottled water to people in Puerto Rico. Why? Well, it’s probably has something to do with the fact that Texas has a couple of really powerful senators on FEMA has oversight committee, Puerto Rico has no representation in Congress, you know, so that is another Example of this has nothing to do with lobbying, right? It’s just like we as a nation have been like, that part of the country doesn’t count either psychically, culturally, or structurally. They have no structural power. And so some of that is just baked into like the structure of the Senate. Right? What’s the problem of farm subsidies? It’s the overwhelming power that rural areas have versus urban areas, et cetera, et cetera, these things are everywhere.
Andy Slavitt 30:49
So you were at this project with a guy named, looking for his name. I think he was President Obama. I do have a clip of you and President Obama getting together. Maybe we this will help people understand how it works a little bit.
Adam, what’s on your mind?
Well, former President Obama.
People always say President.
Well, that’s not accurate, it’s not your job anymore. You know, I was promoted at the supermarket junior year of high school, but I’m not making people call me shift manager Adam Conover for the rest of my life. I don’t want our fact checkers on my ass. So I’m gonna have to stick with former president, or do you prefer for FPOTUS?
Anytime you want to get to the point is fine by me.
FPOTUS Obama, you’re producing the show, people are gonna think it’s pro-government propaganda.
While this show is not about me, the goal of the show is to show people what our government actually does, and to introduce them to the Americans who actually do the work.
But the government doesn’t always work well. In fact, sometimes it does harm. I don’t want to make a show about how the government works. I want to know if it works. And for whom?
Barack Obama 32:07
Do you think I can deduct this as home office?
Very proud of that scene, some really nice, really nice writing there from our team.
By the way, he’s a funny guy. I mean, this comic timing is pretty, pretty good.
And it is infuriating to me, as a comedian who spent, you know, 10 years working in basements in New York City for free to try to get good at comedy to have this mother[…] come in, while he was running the free world somehow became as funny as any of us, like, give me a break. Like it’s very, I have a lot of professional annoyance about it. Yeah, what that scene serves to dramatize is that one thing that was really clear to me when we started making the show was the death of this show will be if it is seen as an Obama administration or you know, machine mouthpiece. And so I told higher ground, I need editorial independence on the show, I need to be able to come up with my own topics and investigate them how I see fit. And they granted me that and then we did this scene in order to make that transparent to the audience that that’s our relationship on the show. And that is, in fact, our relationship. I mean, we do plenty of topics on the show that, you know, I don’t think Barack Obama would have chosen to do the segment we do on unmanned drone strikes or, you know, the Affordable Care Act, or, you know, the neoliberal turn, stuff like that.
So you, you thought, hey, I want to bring a comic touch to this, in part because it’s who you are, and how you’ve communicated. The thing that I find interesting is this idea of using humor, to educate people, and I’m going to just stick into that for a little bit because you have it to some extent, like, there are a lot of people who get a lot more of their news and information from places like beginning with Jon Stewart, John Oliver, who covered legitimately serious topics with facts and, you know, with a brand of humor now that can get carried a lot of direction, some of which, I’m sure are not as good. But that notion, and that the notion that you could take, even go back to like Schoolhouse Rock when I was a kid, which is yeah, probably before your time, but you know, what it is, or other kinds of people who are trying to try to present information in new ways. Do you think that works? I mean, if in this kind of kind of topic, I mean, as two of the funniest people in America, I kind of want to know.
Adam Conover 34:43
Look, if I didn’t think it worked, I wouldn’t be doing it. You know, it’s what I built my career around, and I believe in it very deeply
Try to make people laugh or educate people or both.
Do I try to make people laugh or educate people or both? Both. Absolutely. I think that they are united in their purpose. I think they’re the same thing. You know, I think that something is educational when it is entertaining, if you think about your favorite teacher in school, you know, it wasn’t the teacher who, like recited the facts the best, it was the one who made history come alive to you, right? It was the one who blew your mind with the information. And, you know, comedy conveys ideas. A lot of comics have a, I think stupid point of view on it was like, it’s just jokes, none of it matters. There are some jokes that work that way. Most jokes don’t work that way. Most jokes convey an idea, they have a truth behind them, they have a truth value behind them. A lot of times when people are, quote, offended by a joke and overly offended, they disagree with it. Like they find it to be a false premise, for instance. And so in my experience, making people laugh is one of the best ways to teach them things. That’s why when I had the opportunity, hey, you want to talk about the government? Absolutely. That’s gonna be full of fascinating stories. And it’s important, and there’s people don’t know about it, and they want to know, and I can I can educate them.
What do people tell you more often, though, that when they in which you like hearing more often when someone comes and says, man, I watched your thing, And I learned a ton or, man, I watch your thing, and you’re hilarious, like, which would you rather hear?
Adam Conover 36:09
That is a really good question. Because I really want to take it seriously, which would I rather hear, the comic in me wants to hear your hilarious first, because that’s what I’ve been working on so hard. And, you know, as a comic, you don’t want to be the kind of comic where people applaud, instead of laughing, that’s the death, right. And so making sure that people are always laughing, making sure that the comedy is always a 10 out of 10. Or as close as I can get to it is really, really important to me. What I try to do, though, is have the comedy always serve the idea that we’re getting across, there’s a quote from George Carlin from the book that he wrote just before he died, that I really love and I’m going to butcher it. But what he says is that, you know, when people are laughing, they’re most truly themselves, that’s when their minds are open. And you can plant a little seed at that moment. And later on, it’ll grow. And I find that to be very true.
You’re probably a prisoner of the same thing that a lot of us are a prisoner of nowadays which is that just completely atomized bifurcated media. And that, you know, the, the sort of common experience, you know, being able to be on you know, ABC primetime in 1983. Right doesn’t exist anymore. And so because we have so many choices, and we select so much. And so I wonder, when you put together a show like this, do you think about the impact that it’s having, and I will agree making people laugh. That is a good place to start, for a lot of reasons. But you know, it’s an Obama show, it’s on Netflix, I really would love more conservative people to sort of see it and understand government, but how do I make that happen? Do you feel like you’re, like, did somehow that’s a hard world to get out of?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, we’re all prisoners of the media ecosystem that we’re in, you know, so, yeah, I wish I were doing this show on ABC in 1975. And there were only three or four channels. And, you know, that’s all that people had to watch. Right? And I was getting a third of the audience no matter what I did, but instead of on Netflix, where I’m competing with every other show on Netflix, which we referenced at the beginning of the show, we say hey, you’re watching this you could be watching food fails on nailed it. Right? That’s one of the features of the media ecosystem that I just live in. You know, I’ve often felt that I have in my career jumped from sinking ship to sinking ship because I you know, my first big break was working at the Comedy website College Humor. Within four years of me getting a job there, comedy websites no longer existed, comedy websites that produces produce sketch comedy video, right? Then I was on basic cable making Adam Ruins Everything for TruTV, that ship starts sinking cable television started losing 10% of its audience, every single year that I jumped to Netflix, my show comes out two weeks after Netflix posts, the first subscriber loss in its history. So, you know, I have no control over that.
So Adam Ruins Everything?
I guess I do, I guess I really do. In fact, I really do ruin everything. So I have no control over that. And I have no control over, you know, the portions of the audience who are have been so indoctrinated by some other message that their minds are closed to what I try to say, you know, all I can do is go as wide as I possibly can, you know, try to open the funnel as far as I possibly can, and try to engage people in another way. So one of my deep beliefs is that people are not, you know, they’re not fundamentally liberal or conservative in their entire being and Outlook, you know, some people like they’ve got a little bit more of a reactionary personality. Some people have a little bit more of a, you know, exploratory progressive personality, right? But people are people and my job as a comedian is to interface with people right? And if people have been radicalized about abortion or about guns by Fox News, right? Those are pretty small parts of American discourse. And I can just talk about others. You know, I can say like, hey, don’t you want to know where your weather predictions come from? And I’m not running into that for a little bit, you know, and I can like, talk to them for a little bit while longer, I can make them laugh, they can see that I’m working with integrity that I’m being honest. You know, I get a lot of conservatives saying, you know, hey, I don’t agree with you about everything, but I can tell I like how you do it. You know what I mean? Like, you’re okay. And that’s, like, I don’t get that from everybody. But that’s, I’ll take it. You know what I mean?
Andy Slavitt 40:40
But I would say that, and I’m now getting inside Obama’s head, which is a dangerous thing to do, because he’s way too smart. But, you know, I think one of his goals is to fight misinformation with real information, attractively packaged. And I think it’s part of the purpose of his production company, clearly part of what I could see you doing. And look, I would encourage anybody who hasn’t watched the G word. First of all, time goes by quickly when you’re watching it, because there’s so much stuff, and it’s happening fast. And it’s interesting, but you just learned a ton of stuff. And even if you’re someone like me, who thinks they know more than they do, because I’m someone who probably thinks they know more than they do. You’re like, well, I didn’t know that. Oh, I didn’t. Oh, wow. I didn’t know that. That’s interesting. And I mean, despite what you say about Netflix, having a little bit of a bump. You know, there is no better bigger platform absolutely on, and there’s nobody other than, you know, besides President Obama, right, they’re worse people to collaborate with. So this is very exciting, Adam, and it’s something you didn’t room.
I can’t tell you how much I appreciate those kind words about it. I mean, we put three years of work into this show into researching the hell out of it, join, you know, it took years of work to get ourselves into some of the field pieces that we go report on, you know, that I go inside of Cargill meat processing facility to meet USDA inspectors was like a year’s long process, editing it doing the visual effects, like it was, you know, truly a really long term labor love just to make six episodes. And the fact that you know, people are seeing it and it’s having an impact on people is really, really important to me. So you know, I do this stuff. Because, look, it’s a nice way to make a paycheck, but I really care about it. And so does everybody who works on this show, like spreading good information, using comedy is, you know what I was put here to do. So I’m really proud to be able to do it.
Andy Slavitt 42:46
This has been really fun; I should let you go. But it was really fun having you on, I really appreciate you going in the bubble and not ruining it for that matter.
And I can’t thank you enough for your kind words. And for really watching and thoughtfully engaging with the show. It means the world to me and to everyone who works on it. So thank you so much.
Thank you, Adam, for that engaging conversation. Got our executive producer Kyle here. Kyle, how are you doing?
I’m great. Andy, that was a great show. I learned a lot from Adam,
It was a great call. And you know, I think you guys have been finding some amazing guests. You know, the new team has been here for a few months now. And I think it’s really the you guys are really helped to transform the show in an amazing way. All of you guys. So I’m so appreciative.
It’s been an honor and a privilege to work with you and to go through and make some great podcasts for people to listen to, it’s really been an awesome experience. I know for all of us too.
so if people are new to the show, they’re just started tuning in. And you’re gonna tell them to go back and find the show to listen to, to really get a sense of what in the bubble’s like, what are what are two of the shows, you may recommend that people start with?
Yeah, I mean, there’s so many good ones to go back to, you know, as a Minnesota guy, obviously, I’m going to choose Al Franken, the former senator, he was on back in June at the beginning of the month, or I know people are really wondering about monkey pox. And we’re going to talk about that again, in a couple of weeks, I think but you could go back to and Romani who was on in May, and everything she told us then was right, where, you know, we tried to get ahead of things and let you know what’s coming around the corner. I think she gave us a great heads up. She told us what we needed to know and how to you know what to keep our eye on. So that’s a great episode, our episode on extremism, far right extremism and of course, the one I think that will stick with us was the Roe v. Wade decision. And the show we did right after that. So we’ve had really some great shows you could go back and they’re all timeless, with great information.
Yeah, it’s amazing to me how often people go back and play the old episodes and how relevant they are and oftentimes you’re right. I mean, the we try to get ahead of the curve and tell people what’s coming, or what people are really worried about something to try to assuage those with facts. And I think those are two good choices. I think a lot of people come to the show because they get the latest of what’s happening with the pandemic. But then they find that there’s a lot of other stuff in the world that they’re worried about. I know there’s another podcast, I think there are other podcasts out in the world, if I’m not mistaken, that you wanted to also tell us a little bit about.
Yeah, I know like, for me when I need a little break from the news I listened to add to cart Andy, and I wanted to tell you about it this week. I’ve been listening to it a lot lately. SuChin and Kulap, they just cracked me up. It’s like two best friends who have known each other forever. And you just like, join right in on their friendship as soon as you listen to it. But it’s add to cart because it’s a shopping show. And they give you great tips on what they’re buying. This week, I got some nice skincare stuff for my wife that she really loved. And that won me some points at home. And it’s about body positivity. They talk about being first generation immigrants. And it’s just a really great show. So if you need a little break from the news, I like to listen to add to cart. And I think our listeners would really enjoy it. So I suggest they try that on their podcast player. You can download this show you can download Add to Cart. Yeah, I find
Andy Slavitt 46:23
myself increasingly like maybe just because we’re doing this podcast, but like when I have time to kill going on at a walk, getting on an airplane, rather listen to music, I increasingly download interesting podcasts. And there’s all kinds of fascinating perspectives and getting in someone’s head. And I’m certainly appreciating them more. And that’s a good one. Well, thanks for highlighting that. And, you know, speaking of which, let me just talk a little bit. We’ve got some really good ones coming up that we’ve arranged. Jamie Raskin is going to be coming up soon. He’s, of course the January 6, committee member, Tony Fauci, who is going to talk about what to expect with vaccines. In the fall. Mark Leibovich, the great journalist, who wrote a very interesting book called thank you for your servitude, about all of the people around Donald Trump and in their behavior when he’s watching the Republican Party. Fascinating. I think that show will be great. It’s on Monday. And then, of course, Friday, we got on Friday conversations that this one coming up isn’t something that maybe in addition to skincare, you should also be talking to your wife about, which is male contraception.
Haha, we’ve aged out of that demo. But it’ll be very useful for other people. I, you know, talk about a thing we’re looking around the corner on, people want to know, you know, there are a lot of talk about male responsibility on this issue. And I thought it was a really fascinating conversation. I’m looking forward to people hearing it.
I couldn’t believe that there are two and a half million unplanned pregnancies in the US every year, about half of which I believe is statistics show end up in abortion, because people just are in situations in life where they’re not ready and under really challenging circumstances. So I think Roe v. Wade has made that a topic to focus on that even greater extent given really unfair burden being created on women, but the guests have a really powerful way of talking about it that honestly, stretched my thinking. So anyway, we talking to you on Friday. Thanks so much for tuning in today. And so glad to have you as in in the bubble listener.
Andy Slavitt 48:35
Thanks for listening to IN THE BUBBLE. We’re a production of Lemonada Media. Kathryn Barnes, Jackie Harris and Kyle Shiely produced our show, and they’re great. Our mix is by Noah Smith and James Barber, and they’re great, too. Steve Nelson is the vice president of the weekly content, and he’s okay, too. And of course, the ultimate bosses, Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs, they executive produced the show, we love them dearly. Our theme was composed by Dan Molad and Oliver Hill, with additional music by Ivan Kuraev. You can find out more about our show on social media at @LemonadaMedia where you’ll also get the transcript of the show. And you can find me at @ASlavitt on Twitter. If you like what you heard today, why don’t you tell your friends to listen as well, and get them to write a review. Thanks so much, talk to you next time.